Campus & Community

Welcoming Gen Ed

6 min read

Harvard forum extols new general education requirements

Starting this semester, the new Program in General Education requirements take effect at Harvard College, replacing a set of core courses in place for more than three decades.

The new requirements, commonly called Gen Ed, outline liberal arts courses that must be taken outside a concentration in order to graduate. The Class of 2013 is the first to be embraced by the new scheme, though other undergraduates may opt in.

Gen Ed will require taking one course in each of eight broad categories of learning:  aesthetic and interpretive understanding, culture and belief, empirical and mathematical reasoning, ethical reasoning, science of living systems, science of the physical universe, societies of the world, and United States in the world.

At least one course, the requirements say, must involve a substantial study of the past.

Gen Ed was extolled and explained this week (Sept. 3) at a Lowell Lecture Hall forum, where at least 400 listeners crowded into the tiered seating for a 90-minute program.

“We have created a curriculum about connecting,” said Harvard College Dean Evelynn Hammonds, who picked up on one of the afternoon’s themes: new courses that bridge the inward intensity of mastering a concentration with the ideas, traditions, and values that will add perspective, ethical grounding, and a sense of civic engagement in life after Harvard.

But getting to the jot and tittle of the new required courses took years of intense discussion and negotiation within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), said Hammond, who brought up another theme: praising those who helped shape Gen Ed, from undergraduate essayists and FAS faculty to the formal Task Force on General Education, co-chaired by Louis Menand, Harvard’s Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English and American Literature and Language, and by Samuel H. Wolcott Professor of Philosophy Alison Simmons.

Others on the task force were Stephen M. Kosslyn, John Lindsley Professor of Psychology; David R. Liu, professor of chemistry and chemical biology; Ryan A. Petersen ’08, who was a Quincy House social studies concentrator; David R. Pilbeam, Henry Ford II Professor of Human Evolution; Limor S. Spector ’07, who was a Lowell House physics concentrator; Mary C. Waters, M.E. Zukerman Professor of Sociology; and Stephanie H. Kenen (ex-officio), assistant dean of Harvard College.

“I see this as a historic moment,” said Harvard President Drew Faust, praising the Gen Ed curriculum as “a reaffirmation of the notion of a general education.”

Harvard College made its first explicit commitment to the idea of a broad general education just after World War II, said Faust. “Education is not a process of stuffing the mind with facts,” she said, quoting thinkers from that period — who also wrote that it was critical for undergraduate education “to break the stranglehold of the present on the mind.”

By the 1970s, the general education courses of the 1940s had grown stale, said Faust, which led to the creation of the core program being replaced now.

The emphasis today is both the same as six decades ago — “very much, again, the student in the world,” she said — and it is very different: The world has undergone technical and social revolutions that demand of students a new familiarity with other cultures and places, as well as a sense of where the United States fits into the wider world.

And as sensibilities and realities change, so will the courses within Gen Ed, said Faust, who imagined it as a flexible and nimble curricular entity. “It is never going to be,” she said, “a curriculum achieved.”

FAS Dean Michael D. Smith made the same point, calling for even more new and innovative courses than the 60 in the curriculum to date. “We have been successful so far, but the long-term success of Gen Ed will require the faculty to build upon these early triumphs,” he said. “We are not done.”

Gen Ed courses are already stretching boundaries in the classroom, said Smith, including enriching forays into “intensive research experiences, multimedia projects, collaborative assignments, art-making, international experiences, and activity-based learning.”

Taking the lectern, task force Co-Chair Simmons asked for a show of hands from the Class of 2013. “You, after all,” she said, “are the pioneers of the program.”

Three components are at the heart of a Harvard undergraduate education, she said: a concentration that is an intensive apprenticeship to a single discipline; electives that allow exploration (“What is astrophysics?” said the philosopher Simmons. “Or worse, what is metaphysics?”); and general education, which requires looking outward from college’s otherwise inner pursuits.

“We don’t think a liberal arts education is a break from real life,” said Simmons. “It’s a bridge to real life.”

She called Gen Ed’s required categories of learning “domains of the world” whose broad outlines took years of struggle to shape at Harvard. “The eight,” said Simmons, “didn’t fall from the sky.”

Menand, a culture watcher and frequent contributor to The New Yorker magazine, sketched in a little historical perspective on Gen Ed.

Harvard is a venerable institution with “a lot of arcane traditions and rituals,” he acknowledged. But in the business of education, Harvard is not a very conservative or traditional place — and in fact has taken dramatic steps over the years “to change the face of education,” said Menand.

Behind those steps were a string of Harvard presidents, he explained, beginning with Charles William Eliot, under whose tenure (1869-1909) the institution was transformed from an antebellum college to a modern research university.

For one, said Menand, Eliot had the “revolutionary idea” that a bachelor’s degree should be required for entrance into professional schools, such as for law and medicine.

In the 19th century, young men often skipped college and went directly to professional schools, at which there were no admission requirements and no exams. At one time, said Menand, half of Harvard’s law students and three-quarters of its medical students had never attended college.

So requiring a bachelor’s degree for admission to higher study, he said, had a double benefit: It improved the quality of graduating doctors and lawyers, and it saved colleges by building in an audience for what they offered. Eliot believed “that colleges be nonutilitarian,” said Menand. “First you are liberalized, then you are professionalized.”

Abbott Lawrence Lowell, Harvard president from 1909 to 1933, took another dramatic and transformative step in the world of higher education — by requiring undergraduates to have a concentration. Before then, said Menand, students had “no common body of knowledge shared.”

James Bryant Conant used his term as Harvard president (1933-1953) for further transformations, said Menand, including aptitude tests for undergraduate admissions. The fruit of that step, over time, led to the modern-day SAT, which was first known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

Now after all these years, and during the term of Harvard’s first woman president, comes Gen Ed — another transformative step in higher education. It is, said Hammonds, “a new curriculum fit for a new century.”